Unequal citizens

Print edition : January 16, 2009

Disabled people from all over India assembled at India Gate in New Delhi on the occasion of World Disability Day on December 3. Their demands include a separate ministry for the disabled.-RAJEEV BHATT

IT was December 3, 2008, yet another World Disability Day. Around 5,000 disabled people gathered at India Gate in New Delhi and lit candles and raised their hands together for the spirit of unity. There was not a sigh on their lips, nor was there any optimistic grin on their faces. It seemed as if the flicker of the flames conveyed their emotions. The stepmotherly response to the demands of the disabled over the years and the lack of political will to get them better access to mainstream life had only strengthened their resolve.

A night-long vigil had been planned by the Disabled Rights Group (DRG) but was changed to a solidarity vigil after the terror attacks in Mumbai. The message was clear: no charity, only rights. The vigil was part of an ongoing struggle across the country.

The DRG is a conglomeration of all non-governmental organisations working for the rights of the disabled population in the country. It has three major demands. First, all Ministries should have a disability plan. Second, 3 per cent of each Ministrys budget should be spent on its plans for the disabled. Third, the Disability Division, which is at present under the Ministry of Social Justice, should be upgraded, preferably as a separate ministry.

Javed Abidi, convener of the DRG, told Frontline: We have been pursuing our demands for more than a decade. Ironically, the government has agreed to most of our demands, but they still remain on paper. The Disability Act [The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995] and recommendations in the Eleventh Plan that were passed more than a year ago are positive, but no steps have been taken to implement them.

Clause 6.187 of the Eleventh Plan states that within six months of the Plans approval, every Ministry should have a plan for the empowerment of disabled people. It also says that 3 per cent of the budget of every Ministry should be allocated for people with disabilities and that monitoring mechanisms should be set up at various levels to check the progress in this regard. Along with these provisions, Clause 6.188 states: The Disability Division of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment shall be strengthened with the status of separate Department, so that they can effectively liaise with all the concerned Ministries/Departments and ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities towards disabled persons, including financial support enjoined on them.

The Disability Act, too, has many progressive initiatives. For example, it makes provision for the appointment of a Disability Commissioner who would autonomously deal with issues related to disabled people.

India was the seventh country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on October 1, 2007, but activists think that the government has been extending only token support.

For instance, the U.N. convention talks of sign language as an official language that needs to be developed and recognised. The Indian Disability Act does not take this into account. Most websites in India are still not disabled-friendly even though the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has come out with guidelines on the subject. While Indian software companies design disabled-friendly websites for other countries, they do not do so for India. Most buildings and public transport are still not accessible to the disabled people despite government regulations.

The problem is lack of awareness. Violation of the W3C guidelines has resulted in severe penalties in other countries. We do not want people to be punished, but at least we want Indian officials to be reactive to our cause, if not proactive. Think of it, there was no Disability Commissioner for three years after the Indian Disability Act was passed, and since the appointment was made, the officials have been noted more for their compliance with the government than for their concern for the needs of disabled people, Abidi said.

Disabled people at the candlelit vigil organised at India Gate on December 3, under the banner of the Disabled Rights Group, in memory of the people who died in the Mumbai terror attacks.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

The disability movement in India has been gathering massive support for the last two decades, and its campaign has been, more than anything, about self-respect and the demand for disabled people to be treated as equal citizens, without charitable tokenisms. The fight is for greater access as the movements history indicates.

The rights of disabled people were first recognised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who announced 3 per cent reservation for them in 1977. But the announcement was humiliating as the reservation was announced only in C and D category jobs. This provision remained unchallenged for the next two decades.

When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, he recognised disability as a core issue. He appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Justice Baharul Islam. The committee gave its report in 1988. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act was finally passed by Parliament in December 1995 during the tenure of the Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao. It was notified on February 7, 1996. This time reservation was extended to A and B category jobs and was also increased to 5 per cent.

After a massive public campaign, the Government of India finally included disability as a category in Census 2001. According to Census 2001, over 21 million people in India suffer from one or other kind of disability. This is equivalent to 2.1 per cent of the population. There is, however, the U.N. Manual for the Development of Statistical Information for Disability Programmes and Policies 1996 estimate, which pegs the population of disabled in India beyond 6 per cent and also predicts that its percentage could be a double-digit figure. The only attempt to study the disabled population in India made before this was in 1991, when a National Sample Survey was conducted. It pegged the population of disabled people at 1.9 per cent.

The campaign also resulted in valuable inductions in the Eleventh Plan as has been stated earlier.

The campaign took note of the low population of disabled people employed in both public and private sectors. A survey carried out in 1999 by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People found that despite the 5 per cent reservation, the percentage of the disabled in the workforce ranged from 0.01 per cent to 0.99 per cent. Multinational companies showed the abysmal figure of 0.05 per cent. The public sector fared little better, with disabled people constituting only 0.54 per cent of its workforce.

Clause 41 of Chapter 6 (entitled Employment) of the Disability Act states that incentives should be given to employers both in the public and private sectors to ensure that at least 5 per cent of their workforce is composed of persons with disabilities. But the government has not yet proposed any such incentive plans. To top it all, nothing can be done if the legislation is violated as the Act has no penalty clause.

Using party flags as a red signal, a physically challenged person tries to cross the road at the Municipal Corporation junction in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. Government policies have by and large ignored the needs of the disabled.-K.V. POORNACHANDRA KUMAR

The disability movement stands at a crucial juncture at present. Its activists believe that lobbying for greater access at various levels should continue but more importance should be given to fighting for policy interventions. The reason why this decision came so late, as Abidi puts it, was their naivety.

Discrimination against the disabled in government agencies and in the private sector was appalling when they started the movement. Initially, Abidi and his team lobbied the private sector to give them representation but complaints started coming in that there were hardly any skilled workers to fill the statutory quota. This led to the realisation that intervening at the policy level was necessary so that education was made accessible to those with disabilities. With this orientation, the movement also started looking into the rural hinterland, where disabled people are more severely hit than elsewhere because of the lack of even the minimum of facilities.

Even today, if you look at the buildings of the colleges in any of the central universities, they are inaccessible to a paraplegic. What is the use of reservation if the universities are not physically accessible? Abidi asked.

He said that neither education nor employment was possible without access and none of the three was possible without proper implementation of the legislation.

What we want is a paradigmatic shift in the way problems of disabled people are seen. Equal citizenship is what every civilised society stands for, then why not us? he added.

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